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Friday, August 26, 2005


Carl makes some interesting points and hosts a good discussion about the critical environment for Pop Lit that I asked about the other night.

I've mentioned before my curiosity about a species of Pop Lit that has fallen by the wayside of history: periodical light verse. For most of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, newspapers and magazines regularly published verse. archy and mehitabel started in a newspaper column. Famous song lyricists W. S. Gilbert, Ira Gershwin, and Yip Harburg all published light verse before hitting it big in song -- Gilbert was already famous for his Bab Ballads before he hooked up with Sullivan.

Nowadays A Visit From Saint Nicholas and Casey at the Bat are the most famous of the old newspaper poems. They started their public lives with anonymous and pseudonymous authorship, respectively; controversy over authorship swirled around the latter and still swirls around the former. (For what it's worth, I side with those who say that Livingston, not Moore gave us the defining version of St. Nick, for reasons laid out by Don Foster in his terrific book of studies into literary provenance, Author Unknown.) The only reason anybody cared who wrote A Visit and Casey is that so many people loved the poems and they got reprinted so often and so widely. (Widely reprinted, to no remuneration to the authors, actual or putative: Ernest Thayer, a college pal of Hearst's, wrote Casey for one of his papers and got paid for the original publication but not for the reprints. Moore included A Visit in his late collection of poems, but he never got paid for the many reprints, and nobody got paid for the initial publication in 1823.)

The rhymes immortalizing Santa and Casey still swing today, with their adept and lively rhythms, their humor and wit, their piquant details, their miniature portraiture, and their emotionally resonant drama. Very little of the 19th century Pop Verse that I've seen comes close.

I first got hip to periodical light verse when I stumbled across the charming anthology Famous Poems from Bygone Days in a used book store. Editor Martin Gardner says that he found some of the poems in old scrapbooks that people collected, in which they pasted newspaper clippings and family memorabilia. I had previously come across one of my favorite poems in the book, Hellbound Train, when I heard a punkabilly band sing it in a bar in my neighborhood.

You can imagine how excited I was to find such an old family scrapbook a few years ago in the cottage my great-grandparents built. It's packed with newspaper poems and articles, as well as some hand-written family history. Most of the poems are of the sentimental religious variety, not really my thing. But I did want to show you [the first stanza of] a scathing parody of a Rudyard Kipling chestnut, called The White Man's Shame:

"Take up the white man's burden" --
And do as he has done,
In the far-off southern desert,
Under the desert sun.
Rob and murder and pillage,
For the love of the bloodshed slay;
Fight for the itch of an ancient wound,
For the shame of a distant day! . . .

--C. H. G. in Chicago Times-Herald


I'd like to talk to whichever ancestor of mine cut this poem out of the paper and glued it in this book. And I wonder about old C. H. G.

[Note, much later: I originally posted all 6 stanzas, but decided to take it down as it was not quite accurate: I had misread one word in the copy in the family scrapbook; and, which I don't know how to fix in this computer program, the original indents every other line. I hope to post an accurate version somewhere before too long.]
"I had previously come across one of my favorite poems in the book, Hellbound Train, when I heard a punkabilly band sing it in a bar in my neighborhood."

I wonder if this might not offer a clue as to why periodical light verse has disappeared: nowadays would-be writers of light verse pick up a guitar and/or form a band and write songs. And although some songs are more ambitious (often with disastrous results), most good songs are good light verse. But I have been struck by the steady, almost exponential rise over the past 40 years of the number of people--amateurs, semipros, professionals-making music, especially song music. It seems to be becoming the new national pastime.
John H.,

What you say makes sense. I'd bet that your suggestion is at least part of the equation.

2 things I forgot to add:

Editor Martin Gardner attributes "Hellbound Train" to the great Anonymous. He found it in several versions from anthologies and newspaper printings (that he found in scrapbooks). He synthesized the version in his anthology from two separate sources.

There is one light versifier still publishing in the weekly press: Calvin Trillin writes topical light verse almost every week for The Nation magazine.
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